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Honorary Doctorate Recipient: Tom Matano

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Photo courtesy of AAU Publications.

Many people might not know how Tom Matano, executive director of the School of Industrial Design at the Academy of Art University and designer of the Mazda Miata, started out at the Academy. Well, his story started out much like that of a student, living in a dorm room. The multi award-winning designer who has held prominent design positions around the world at General Motors, BMW and eventually executive designer at Mazda, lived in an Academy dorm room. Why?

“I never had a dormitory experience, maybe I should experience the dorm life,” said Matano of his first year at the Academy in 2002.

Laughing, he added, “It wasn’t bad at all. I found out what a boom box is,” recalling how his table lamp shook like crazy from his music-playing, college-aged neighbors. 

Matano’s beginning at the Academy is a sentiment to his humbleness and affability at the same time being one of the top automotive designers in the world.

Because of his 30-plus years contribution to the world of automotive design and impact on countless students who call Matano their mentor at the Academy, he was awarded an honorary doctorate at the Academy’s Spring 2017 Commencement ceremony on May 10 held at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.

A video played at the ceremony taking the audience through Matano’s early years born in Nagasaki, Japan and growing up in 1950s Tokyo, always having a fascination with the way things worked. Matano went to Seikei University in Tokyo as an analysis engineering major, although his heart always connected to the humanist aspects of design. Eventually making his way to the United States on his uncle’s cargo ship, Matano graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Southern California. Upon which, Matano landed his first job with General Motors in Detroit. 

The rest is history. 

“He has enriched our community, enriched the world of art and design, and enriched the world in which we live,” said Dr. Elisa Stephens, president of the Academy, at the ceremony. 

Smiling as he walked to the podium, Matano humbly accepted his honorary doctorate. The first comment he made was of his evolving hairstyles over the years shown in the video and thanking God he still had some. 

He spoke about the enjoyment he feels being at the Academy. 

“I joined the Academy in 2002. Since then I never get up in the morning and say, ‘Ugh, I hate having to go to work.’ Every single day I love to get up and go to work. That is the truth,” Matano said. 

He then gave advice to the graduates sitting in the audience. “Think 25 years ahead…don’t just look at the senior designer above you, but the one above that. Think in their mind.”

The success of Matano’s own designs is at the heart of his advice. The Miata sportscar is now in its fourth generation. This is advice Matano has given to many of his students throughout the years including Antonio Borja, an Academy graduate and now the associate director of the School of Industrial Design. Borja talked about the significant influence Matano has had on his career and teaching style recalling a time in class when Matano passed his clay model and without saying a word, dropped water on the model and walked away.

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Honorary doctorate recipient Tom Matano and Dr. Elisa Stephens. Photo by Bob Toy.

“I pondered looking at the water thinking, ‘Why would he want me to wet the clay,”’ said Borja, eventually realizing the reason why Matano did this. “The water wasn’t moving; the surface was completely flat. There was no acceleration, which is bad for an automotive design.”

From their time together, Borja said he evaluated design from a more elevated perspective and learned that automotive design is not just about looking cool, but instead about making people’s lives better. 

“I feel really lucky and fortunate to have a mentor like him,” Borja said. “He’s a visionary. After all he’s accomplished he still is able to provide a vision of where we’re going and what the future will look like.”

Mentor was a title given to Matano by another one of his students, Mitchell Galik, who is currently working on his bachelor’s degree in automotive design. Galik, who will graduate in 2018, said he was initially intimidated by Matano, but in little time realized what a warm and caring instructor he was. Learning and laughing is what Matano’s students are doing in his class and the same is said for Matano. 

“The man is full of wisdom. I’ve learned so much from him in my last semester than my entire time at school,” Galik said. 

Although Matano does not have children of his own, he said in his speech that he now has 600 at the Academy. Many students who know Matano know they have been taught by a designer who has changed the world of automotive design by thinking not just of the design itself, but of the humanistic qualities of design, enhancing lives and making the world a better place. 

 “Always design with mankind and human nature,” he said, as his commencement speech came to a close. “I will proudly treasure this for the rest of my life.”